By Forrest Carr, RTDNA Contributor
I think we can agree the wording could have been better.
A TV station in Texas ran a story this week about the death of a literary and civil rights icon. As pretty much all stations do these days, the story included a lower-third onscreen banner. Its top line stated that the person was “DEAD AT AGE 86.” Beneath that was a line that read, “CANCELS HOUSTON APPEARANCE ON FRIDAY.”
Now, as always it’s not my intention to embarrass anyone, so I’m leaving out all names. You can look it up if you’re curious. But to say the station is taking some heat would be like saying Superstorm Sandy dampened some basements. Back in the good old days, if a station were to stub its toe, dozens or even hundreds of people might call the station to complain, but absolutely no one would ever know about it, unless the local newspaper happened to employ a particularly aggressive media critic. These days, thanks to social media, absolutely everyone learns about it, and the Internet chatter then becomes news in and of itself—which is how I learned about this incident.
I can’t tell you what caused the mistake. Maybe it was just a typo. But because it fits a very common pattern, I will use it to make a point about TV Speak.
TV Speak is a rare sub-dialect of the English language, spoken only by native TV Newsians. Its most distinguishing feature is that TV Speak lacks any form of past tense verb conjugation. This forces the speaker to convert every verb, especially in the story lead, to present or future tense.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Let’s say that a horrible hit-and-run traffic accident happens in the early morning hours. In our scenario, one car rear-ends another one, causing the struck vehicle to burst into flames. The driver at fault runs off on foot. Meanwhile, a trucker who happens to be passing by in an 18 wheeler stops, and winds up pulling the driver of the burning vehicle to safety. By 6 pm, it’s all over and done with. But because there is no past tense in TV Speak, the 6 pm anchor can’t say, “A hit-and-run accident this morning seriously injured a local woman.” That past tense verb “injured” must be converted to something else. So you might hear the anchor say, “A hit-and-run accident seriously injures a local woman this morning.” Or worse, “A hit-and-run accident seriously injuring a local man this morning.”
Either sentence would have sent Mrs. Grundy, my elementary school grammar teacher, into high Earth orbit. Yet you hear that kind of sentence construction all the time in TV news. And there are several other problems with it besides grammar. Chief among them:
It’s not conversational
Absolutely no one outside of a newsroom talks in TV Speak. Its use violates one of the key rules of broadcasting, which is that copy should sound the way people actually talk. Our medium is spoken, so we have to write for the ear. If you don’t, then at best you’ll sound dry and boring. At worst you’ll sound just plain weird. That’s not good. You don’t want your viewers thinking you’re not like them.
It’s often confusing
Anyone hearing TV Speak is likely to scratch their heads and go, “Huh?” Or as we put it in my native South, “Do what?” They may or may not understand your intended meaning.
It’s not factual
If you express a past fact in the present tense, it might give the impression that the action is taking place right now. But that’s inaccurate.
You can see the effects of this in the Texas example. The facts were that the previous week, the subject of the story had canceled the upcoming Houston appearance. The best way to express that is through use of the pluperfect tense, as I just did—“had canceled.” Flipping a switch to convert the verb to simple present tense (“cancels”) changes the meaning. The TV Speak sentence was factually incorrect. TV stations and even some of the networks do this all the time. They don’t normally get pilloried for it. But they should.
How did our industry arrive at this sorry state of affairs?
When I first became a news manager (I won’t say how long ago it was but I will say that my station broadcast almost all of its programming in color) I embarked on a mission to stamp out TV Speak, along with its evil companion, Passive Writing (another topic for another day). I asked this question of one hapless writer who wandered into my crosshairs: “Explain to me why you insist on writing that way.” The guy looked at me as if I’d suddenly sprouted tentacles. “Don’t you want me to?” he asked, hurt. And then he added, “I thought we weren’t supposed to write leads in the past tense.”
Upon pressing the guy about who’d taught him TV Speak, he claimed that he’d gotten it from a news consultant. I’ve heard that same explanation many times over the years. Some of the claims revolved around one particular consultant. One year at an RTDNA convention, I buttonholed the guy and asked him if the allegations were true. The answer from him was not only “no,” but “hell, no.” The gentleman told me that he, too, had been on a mission to stamp out the practice. His objections were identical to mine. In all my years in the biz, I never heard any consultant advise or teach the use of TV Speak, nor did I ever meet one who admitted to ever having done so at any point in the past.
But the idea that consultants are responsible for this endures as an Urban TV Newsroom Legend. And if you let it, it’ll take over your entire staff, sort of like the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers. You’ll wake up one morning and find out that every journalist you know has turned into a TV Speak pod person.
As with many myths, however, there is a kernel of truth to this one. Consultants and news directors alike do advise their writers to avoid past tense construction in story leads. There’s good reason for this. For newscasts to succeed, they must be relevant. For them to be relevant, the copy must be updated and fresh. Past tense works against that, especially in today’s 24/7 always connected media world. There’s nothing more useless than a dated newscast; you can’t even line a parrot cage with it.
One of the tactics I employed to stamp out TV Speak in the newsrooms I led was to give the occasional writing seminar. As one of our drills, I’d lay out a scenario similar to the traffic accident referenced above, and ask participants to write a present tense lead. The first few offerings almost always were some form of TV Speak. After buzzing those contestants into silence and thanking them for playing, next I’d typically get something like this: “Tonight police are looking for a hit-and-run driver who allegedly injured a local man this morning.”
Overlooking the word “allegedly” (yet another topic for another day), let’s examine what the writer did. She pulled out something that legitimately is going on right now, and wrote to it. That’s definitely one way to do it. If you pull that thread just a little bit further, you can formalize the process into something that will work for almost any story.
But before we start, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves that we’re not just stenographers repeating back dry facts. We’re supposed to be storytellers. Every story is like a little movie, and we’re the director. With those thoughts in mind, here are the questions to ask:
1. What’s the plot (the basic facts)?
2. Who’s in the cast of characters?
3. Who is the most interesting character?
4. What is that person doing right now?
5. What will that person be doing tomorrow?
Following the chain of logic will allow you to pick something to write about that really is taking place right now, or that will be taking place tomorrow. At this point in my workshops, most writers think about it for half a second, and then spit out something like this: “Tonight a local woman is lucky to be alive after a horrifying hit and run accident this morning.”
Setting aside the awful “lucky to be alive” cliché, the sentence would probably satisfy a lot of news managers. But there is still something badly wrong with it—not in the sense that it contains bad grammar or makes an incorrect statement, but “wrong” because it misses a major opportunity. Any guesses as to what it is?
Those of you with senior writing experience can put your hands down. For the rest of you, if you answered “Because the victim was not the most interesting character,” award yourself a gold star. The trucker who stopped and dived through flames to rescue the trapped driver is the most interesting character. The best way to write a captivating story is to center it on him.
Which leads me to my final point about battling TV Speak while also stamping out dated leads. Here’s the dirty little secret: while you do want to avoid boring past-tense leads, there’s nothing wrong with exciting past-tense leads. This brings us to narrative storytelling.
Focusing on the trucker, doing a little original reporting, and putting on our novelist’s hat might result in a first line like this: “It didn’t seem like a fateful decision at the time. But within seconds of pulling off the Interstate to fuel up this morning, trucker Fred Hammerdown found himself diving into a burning car, desperately trying to save the life of a total stranger.” This is what our print colleagues might call an “anecdotal” lead. It has past-tense construction. Even so, if done right, the copy will capture the listener, will get the facts across, and will do it transparently, without sounding boring, artificial or strained—which is, after all, our ultimate goal. But, if you’re short on time, you can still focus quickly on our main character and do it with present tense. “Some are calling him a hero, but Trucker Fred Hammerdown tells us tonight he would have done it for anyone.” Just make sure he really did just say that. Or, “Right now, Marcia Jones has two goals. The first is to get out of the hospital. And then she plans to meet the man who saved her life.”
Etc. There are a zillion ways to do it without having to invoke TV Speak. No one writing approach is necessarily “the best.” Remember, your copy doesn’t have to win any prose prizes, and the examples I just gave are in no danger of doing that. But it does have to capture the listener, tell the story, and do it in our common language.
I’ve been told it’s a daunting goal, one that our industry can never achieve. But I prefer to believe that if we all pull together, we can stamp out TV Speak in our lifetime.
Forrest Carr has worked as a television news director in Arizona, New Mexico and Florida, and as an ethics fellow at the Poynter Institute. He can be reached at forrestcarr99 at gmail dot com